‘I Lost My Mom to the Justice System for 15 Years’

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Messiah Rhodes' documentary, "Against All Odds,' explores the roadblocks facing women like his mother after leaving prison. Courtesy Al Jazeera Contrast

Every year, more than one million women cycle in and out of the U.S. justice system, a figure that includes those in prisons and jails as well as those on probation, parole or pretrial detention.

Messiah Rhodes’ mom was one of them.

He was a youngster when his mother, Juanique, went to jail for the first time—and for the next 15 years she was in and out of lockup.

Rhodes, a documentary filmmaker and producer, used his skills and his personal experience to explore the plight of justice-involved women and their families—and more significantly, the success stories of those like his mother who were finally able to “break the cycle.”

Some 77 percent of incarcerated women will return to prison or jail within nine years after their release. But that statistic could improve, Rhodes argues in his two-part documentary film, “Against All Odds,” on AJ+ (Al Jazeera Contrast) if there were more programs available to provide education, job training, housing and other opportunities to help them successfully reintegrate.

still photo

Juanique Rhodes. Still photo from documentary “Against All Odds”

In a recent conversation with The Crime Report, Rhodes discussed why he made the film, why breaking the cycle of recidivism remains daunting for women, and the emotional wounds that persist after growing up with a mother who was in and out of jail.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of the transcript.

The Crime Report: In the film, you cite a study that reports women who receive an education while still incarcerated have a greater likelihood of breaking the cycle once released. What do you have to say to folks who say that a four-year liberal arts degree is not very helpful, materially, and that trade schools or vocational training ought to be emphasized instead?

Messiah Rhodes: I think it’s a false antithesis. Those two paths or strategies for reform and reintegration into society don’t have to be in conflict. The question, though, is should we just funnel formerly incarcerated people into the university system? Is that the solution?

If so, what might be the results culturally? I don’t think you have to take one side or the other. For instance, Michelle Jones [a featured character in my film] is studying to earn her Ph.D., but she still runs a program that teaches construction skills and similar trade skills. Formerly incarcerated people have the ability to overcome circumstances that are hard for most people to imagine.

One of the biggest [problems facing] formerly incarcerated people is that they’re capable of unbelievable accomplishments, but if they can’t get a job because of their record and there is no housing, and the community they return to is full of dead ends, then of course there’s a strong chance they’ll reoffend. They need and deserve some support. I’m hopeful. I really think we’ll get there. That’s what I want people to take away from my series.

TCR: Transitional housing such as Hope House in the Bronx is a component of the reentry process that you appear to prioritize in your film. Do you think that safe and secure housing is the first step in the rehabilitative process?”

Messiah Rhodes

Messiah Rhodes. Photo by Aala Abdullahi

RHODES: I don’t think this issue should be thought of in terms of a hierarchy of priorities, say, to prioritize transitional housing and safe spaces over other issues like healthcare or education. [But] why don’t places like Hope House receive more funding? Hope House is a women-only mutual program in the Bronx, co-founded by Topeka K. Sam and Vanee Sykes, both formerly incarcerated women.

The money allocated to services for transitional housing is outrageous. Money for shelters, or emergency shelters for people returning to their communities from jail or prison, comes from HUD, and they don’t fund what’s designated as transitional housing. The government just hasn’t gotten up to speed. That’s the most generous explanation.

TCR: Was skilled labor something you were involved with as a young person?

RHODES: I was involved with a workforce program as a teenager, called NPower New York, while I was living in a homeless shelter. They taught information technology, like computer support and server support, basic computer maintenance. I started doing that in my late teens.

And I was doing that while I was also doing grip and electric work on film sets at the same time, and I was able to get a job on different productions through people I met at an at-risk youth center in Manhattan called The Door. That was the beginning.

TCR: With this latest project, did you find that there was a significant segment of women coming home who distrusted the alternative, community-based social services you feature in your documentary?

RHODES: Yes, that definitely happens, unfortunately that’s a primary cause of recidivism, it’s one of the reasons that recidivism happens. There are a lot of reasons why people sometimes see these reentry services as part of the government as well. So, even though they’re not run by the government, they’re often run by formerly incarcerated people, nevertheless for some people they’re unsure, so yes, sadly that is a problem. That’s something that the women running these operations are working on.

TCR: How do you reach people who either don’t understand why recidivism is such a problem or who assume that reoffending is a matter of will power? 

RHODES: I think you do that by breaking down the role of the police in the community. What are they filling in for? What’s not in the community, because the police are in a sense filling that gap in vulnerable communities, especially lower- income communities of color. I think you reach those folks, people who are not completely resistant to reviewing their opinions and ideas, by explaining the need.

women in prison

Still from documentary “Against All Odds.” Courtesy AJ+

Need is the well-spring of crime, in many instances. It’s what follows from the lack of decent schools, affordable healthcare and mental healthcare. A big reason why juvenile delinquency is as bad as it is, is because of cuts in education.

Mental health care is especially inaccessible to our people. And when something happens that’s a result of someone who has an untreated mental health condition, who shows up? The police—and sometimes [somebody] dies.

TCR: How do the organizations that you document in your film, such as FIT Clinic, alert people to their presence in the neighborhood? What is their outreach strategy? 

RHODES: As of right now, it’s almost all word of mouth. And that starts for incarcerated women while they’re still in jail or prison approaching their release date. It may surprise some people, but that’s where we are right now. Sometimes someone’s lawyer will investigate and find out about places like what I profile in the film, but the majority of awareness of these spaces is through word of mouth.

TCR: What is Operation Restoration?

RHODES: As you see in the documentary it’s an organization in New Orleans that’s managed by a woman named Dolfinette Martin, founded in 2016 by Syrita Steib. They have a broad host of programs that support formerly incarcerated women, and they offer a comprehensive range of services.

TCR: Your film is simultaneously comprehensive and focused. What do you hope audiences will take away after viewing it?

RHODES: In a word, hope. Sometimes people have a picture of formerly incarcerated people as weak-willed, dependent or incapable. The reality is the exact opposite. You can’t get a job because of your criminal record. At the same time you’re trying to figure out how to pay for a mandatory ankle bracelet, and you can’t go home because someone who lives there is a felon. Public housing can’t house you by law, depending on the crime. I’ll stop there. Individuals have to do their part, but so does society.

TCR: How did you bear up emotionally with a mother going in and out of jail?

RHODES: When I was really young, I was sad. Then as I became a teenager, that turned into anger toward my parents.  Parents are supposed to be there for you, showing you how to be a human being in the world, and they’re not there. Instead, you have to figure it out yourself. That’s when anger begins to build. It remains a learning process for me, learning to trust.

See also interview with Messiah Rhodes on “Democracy Now.”

John Ramsey is a contributing writer to The Crime Report.

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